Wednesday, 31 October 2007

From the Heritage Bunker (Episode 2)

Sir Humphrey: I thought your statement on the Millennium Centre went extremely well, Minister.

Minister: Thank you, Sir Humphrey.

Sir Humphrey: Particularly the way in which you transferred the blame to the people who had leaked the document to the media. That usually has the desired effect of diverting attention from the real issue.

Minister: For the time being at least. But I’d still like to know how much it is all going to cost.

Sir Humphrey: Well, which answer would you like, Minister?

Minister: The correct one?

Sir Humphrey: The correct answer to any question always depends on the question, Minister. So before I can give you a correct answer, we need to define the correct question. Perhaps we could start by asking what answer you would like to be able to give?

Minister: What?

Bernard: Well, Minister, it’s really very simple. Any aid will be a mixture of grants and loans, and there will be some promises to underwrite costs which may never transpire to be real expenditure at all. Some of the money will be paid immediately and some will be deferred, and some will merely be contingency which may never be called upon. Some might even be in the form of the Arts Council subsidising productions and events, so will never go to the Centre itself at all, or will come from a different line on the budget. So there are a range of possible answers, depending on the question.

Minister: I see. What’s the lowest figure?

Sir Humphrey: I thought that might be the one that you would want, Minister. I already have a small team of civil servants working on the answer for you, and we should have it back in a month or two. Now, perhaps we can turn to more pressing issues. Ess Four See.

Minister: I’m thinking of calling for it to be devolved to the Assembly.

Sir Humphrey: Is that wise, Minister?

Minister: Of course. It’s a Welsh channel, its future should be decided by the Assembly. And it would be a bold statement of the way I intend to increase the powers of the Assembly.

Sir Humphrey: But the costs of S4C are just a pinprick in London; they would look like a substantial part of your budget here in Wales. What if the Assembly were to decide to cut back on spending in order to build more hospitals, for instance?

Minister: Well, we’ll demand that the money currently spent on the channel should be devolved as well, and that it should be ring-fenced so that it can't be spent on anything else.

Bernard: So the Minister in London retains control over how much should be spent by the devolved administration in Cardiff, and gets rid of a problem at the same time.

Sir Humphrey: Bernard! Yes, I think I can probably persuade my colleagues in Whitehall of the merits of that suggestion, Minister. But there are some serious issues facing the channel with a declining number of viewers and an increasing cost per viewer – how do you propose to tackle those?

Minister: Any suggestions?

Sir Humphrey: Well, the real problem, Minister, is that the channel has a very low audience and that makes it difficult to attract advertising revenue. Now, what it really needs to do is to attract a higher audience.

Minister: And how could it do that?

Sir Humphrey: The factor which restricts the audience is the fact that it only currently appeals to those who can speak Welsh. Now if we could only find some way of overcoming that…

Minister: What if it were to become a bilingual channel?

Sir Humphrey: What a brilliant idea, Minister. And a very bold decision. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind.

Bernard: But wouldn’t that look like a betrayal of the principles on which the channel was founded?

Sir Humphrey: Only to a few fringe nationalists. But think of the headlines – Minister thinks the Unthinkable; Minister in Brave New Departure; Minister faces up to the tough decisions needed in government.

Minister: And some good photo opportunities as well?

Sir Humphrey: Certainly Minister.

Minister: With Superted on one side and Sam Tân on the other?

Sir Humphrey and Bernard: Yes, Minister.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Gunboats and Megaphones

During a day in which a host of Plaid politicians took to the airwaves to condemn the latest remarks by Peter Hain, David Cornock asked the simple question – what is so surprising about a politician expressing a consistent viewpoint? It’s a fair question, and deserves an answer.

I think that there were two aspects of Hain’s latest remarks which provoked the ire of Plaid on this occasion.

The first was the timing. Hain’s previous statements were mostly made before or around the time of the discussions on One Wales, and could have been dismissed as the views of an individual being input to the debate. This weekend’s comments were made within days of the joint announcements by Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn Jones that a Chair had been appointed to the Convention, that the referendum would be held on or before the date of the next Assembly elections and that there was, as Morgan put it, "no reason to depart from that commitment". Seen in that context, Hain’s comments looked like a deliberate attempt to sabotage or undermine the decision of the Assembly Government.

The second was the implicit threat that Westminster would use its veto to block a referendum, regardless of any decision in Cardiff. The provision in the Government of Wales Act that there needed to be a two-thirds majority in the Assembly before a referendum could be triggered was always intended to make it difficult for the Assembly to act; and impossible without the backing of Labour. The requirement for a vote in Westminster was a backstop, but not really expected to be necessary, since it would inevitably involve over-riding the views of the Assembly. Paradoxically, when it is now clear that there is easily a two-thirds majority – with probably 50 plus of the 60 AM's voting for, and only Tories (most of them anyway) voting against – in the Assembly for taking this step, it makes it much more serious for Westminster to resist the will of Cardiff on this issue. Yet that seemed to be exactly what Hain was saying he would do.

Normal Mouth is always thoughtful in his analysis, and I frequently find myself in agreement with him, but on this occasion, by referring to Plaid synthesising a ‘toxic level of anger’, I think he’s got it wrong. In signing up to One Wales after a special conference of the Labour Party agreed by 4:1, and a special meeting of Plaid’s National Council agreed by 9:1, I think that Plaid thought that they had an agreement between the two parties, not just between the AM’s of both parties. They always knew that it didn’t apply to reserved matters, or local government matters, but they expected that it would apply to the key elements of One Wales.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the agreement to hold a referendum in getting Plaid’s support for One Wales, and in that context, a statement from someone as prominent as Hain in the Labour Party implying that Labour would use its majority in London to block the proposal by the One Wales government is inevitably raising concern within Plaid as to whether Labour are serious about the commitment which they gave.

Plaid will have two concerns at this point. The first is that they could be duped into supporting the One Wales government for four years on the basis of a false prospectus. If Labour aren't serious about their commitment, Plaid will want to know that now, rather than later. The second is that Plaid's membership may start to become restless about the deal. In this context, I found it significant that Plaid's Chair was amongst those deployed yesterday. They usually only wheel Dixon out to talk about internal party issues; I suspect that this signifies that at least some in Plaid's high command are concerned about a possible internal challenge to the agreement - and indeed Adam Price seemed to be saying as much yesterday.

Of course, Hain and some of those who jumped to his support have genuine concerns. If those concerns are about the winnability of any referendum rather than about patching over the cracks in the Labour Party, they are valid even within the context of the One Wales agreement. Those concerns should properly be considered and discussed through the Convention - on that at least I agree with Normal Mouth.

But by engaging in megaphone discussions, and threatening to use the gunboat to get his own way, Hain went a step too far. Certainly, Plaid need to show a little more understanding of the difficulties within the Labour Party, and not necessarily try and exploit them on each and every occasion (although if Labour really do present them with open goals…); but Labour also need to understand the importance and significance of this issue for Plaid’s support. This is not just a policy issue within One Wales where changed circumstances might need a degree of flexibility; this is a fundamental pillar of the agreement, and it appeared that Hain was proposing that it could be over-ridden.

I suspect that Plaid don’t really need a formal and public humiliation of Hain by Rhodri Morgan, whatever they may say. But they do need much more confidence that the Labour Party, not just Labour AM’s, feel some ownership of One Wales and the commitments therein. Labour will be making a serious mistake if they don’t respond to that.

Monday, 29 October 2007

The Royal Taboo

No, not sex, drugs, or blackmail; just republicanism.

Alun Cairns' inbuilt hyperbole engine went into overdrive at the end of last week when he discovered that Plaid AM Leanne Wood was attending a conference of republicans in London.
By some process of logic which probably only he himself can fathom, Cairns apparently sees attending a UK-wide, cross party meeting of republicans as being a 'call for further isolation'. Better yet, cranking up the engine to even greater levels of nonsense, he goes on to describe republicanism as having no sort of logic to it. This is an interesting way to describe the system chosen by most countries in the world for selection of their head of state – and is somewhat lacking as a rational defence of the hereditary principle.

It may be that Cairns’ basic underlying assumption – that republicanism is inherently unpopular – is correct. Perhaps people in the 21st Century really do still believe that heredity is a good basis for selecting a head of state. But, even if he is correct on that point, it doesn’t mean that there should be some sort of taboo around debating the subject. Creating a taboo is something that people only do if they can’t handle a proper argument. And condemning someone for simply taking part in a conference to discuss the issue is hardly a mature contribution to debate.

Wood has always made her republicanism perfectly clear to all, as have a number of other members of her party. (Although it is not correct, as Ordovicius suggests, to say that Plaid is a republican party. It is not. The issue is one which the party has studiously – and timidly – avoided debating or taking a position on, preferring to argue that it’s an irrelevance to the real issue, which is about the powers of any Welsh Parliament or Assembly).

It’s not exactly a secret that many members of the Labour Party are also republicans; indeed it would be a surprise if that were not true given the party’s roots in a sense of egalitarianism. Few of them, however, choose to argue the point openly.

Cairns is surely aware that there are even some members of his own party who recognise that there is no sensible argument for a hereditary monarch, although they carefully respect the taboo in public.

The Labour government has quite properly started to tackle the nonsensical hereditary element of the House of Lords, although they have not gone as far or as fast as I would have liked, and have yet to commit to turning that House into an elected chamber. Having started to challenge the principle, surely it is only proper that we should have more debate about whether the head of state should be appointed purely because of who his or her parents were.

Wood doesn’t always do things in the most subtle of ways, but she’s honest and forthright with her views on this issue. If Cairns believes that he can justify a hereditary head of state, let him say so, and explain why – in short, he should enter into the debate, rather than merely playing to the gallery.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Convention and Fudge

The shape of the devolution settlement granted to Wales following the referendum in 1997 was never a thought-through coherent structure. Nor was it ever intended to be. It is quite clear that it was a cobbled-together approach, which its author, Ron Davies, always knew would be unsustainable.

He was confident that, once such a body was created, it was a step that could never be undone, and therefore the very creation of the body was the important aspect - everything else could be revisited. To achieve the creation of the body, he had to steer a course between enthusiasm for greater devolution and deep-seated opposition to the very concept – all entirely within his own party. So we ended up with a fudge.

That basic contradiction has never gone away; the real regulator of progress remains where it has always been - in the internal workings and tensions of the Labour Party where enthusiasm and hostility continue to co-exist in an uneasy and sometimes quarrelsome relationship.

The inherent problems with the settlement rapidly became apparent during the first Assembly, but there was no real appetite for dealing with them, so the government did what all governments do in such situations - they set up a Commission. Lord Richard was tasked with reviewing the whole set-up, and the issue was safely kicked into the long grass for a few years.

The Commission’s report, when it was published, can have surprised almost nobody, given the weight of evidence presented to it from a wide range of bodies and individuals. But what it did not, and could not, do was address the real problem - which was, as ever, the internal disagreement within the Labour Party. The result, inevitably, was that the 2006 Government of Wales Act was another fudge.

It is an Act which gives the Assembly a complex, almost incomprehensible, way of starting to make its own legislation, but allows Westminster to hold a veto at all times. It is an Act which legislates for a Parliament, but makes it subject to a difficult-to-hold referendum. An Act which the pro-devolutionists could support as a step forward, and which the antis could support as a means of, as they saw it, blocking progress for the foreseeable future.

Following this year’s elections to the third Assembly, a coalition was negotiated between the two largest parties, and the issue of the referendum on enacting the full provisions of the 2006 Act was a central feature of the negotiations. From Plaid’s perspective, there was a need for a clear commitment to holding a referendum; from Labour’s perspective, there was a need to avoid giving any such clear-cut commitment, or at the very least, leaving an escape clause. The result was another inevitable fudge - a pledge to establish a Convention.

Some people, such as Professor Richard Wyn Jones, have queried what exactly the Convention will do; that misses the point. It's real purpose is met, in full, by its very existence – it needs to do nothing more than to exist in order to meet that objective - because the real objective is simply to act as the glue which sustains the One Wales coalition for the next four years, and allows both partners to accept that the other is operating in good faith.

Normal Mouth, as ever, exposes the nakedness of the Emperor. He goes on to argue, as I interpret him, that the fact that it does not have an obvious role is not to say that we shouldn’t give it one. On that, I agree with NM; but on the nature of that role, we differ.

He suggests that the Convention could and should look at the arguments for that next step in detail. I’m not entirely convinced by this argument, not least because it seems to pre-suppose that the precise model for the next step is open to a degree of change. I take issue with his suggestion that this will be a 'pre-legislative' referendum; the legislation establishing a Parliament for Wales is already on the Statute Book; the only issue is whether it should be activated. This means that, if the Convention was to suggest even slight changes, there could be a need for further legislation to give effect to them.

Having said that, I think that NM and I would probably agree that, in an ideal world, the debate should be at a level which analyses what powers Wales needs and should have, based on an objective assessment of what would deliver real benefits to our people. But I hold out little hope that such a debate is possible, since it seems to me that most of the protagonists know what the ‘correct’ answer is, and are interested only in arguments which support their conclusions.

In the campaign for a referendum, we can already anticipate the battle lines. Plaid, and whatever is left by then of the Lib Dems, will campaign for a Parliament.

I think we can take it as read that the Tories will campaign against. Some such as Glyn Davies might argue against me on this one, but the tide within that party is drifting in the direction of Stephen Crabbe and David Davies. Even Glyn himself, in saying that he hopes that one day there will be a majority in his party in favour, admits effectively that the majority is currently against him. Cameron and Gillan have already declined several opportunities to say that they back Bourne on this issue; and most Tory AM’s have been conspicuously silent on the issue. The Tory decision to campaign against will be based entirely on what their high command see as being to the electoral advantage of their party - and the English perspective will be more important to them than the Welsh one.

The key question, in a direct repeat of 1979 and 1997, is what Labour will do. This is, ultimately, the only issue which needs to be resolved before a referendum for a parliament can be won. It is, and always has been, grossly over-simplistic to present the fault lines in Labour as being between Cardiff and London, although the attraction of that argument to the Plaid politicians who make it is obvious. The task for Sir Emyr and his redoubtable diplomatic skills is to achieve once more what Ron Davies did before 1997 – to get a sufficient level of consensus within the Labour Party to support the policy which that party has democratically decided upon. It’s no small task, but it’s the only meaningful job that the Convention has. Anything else will be just window-dressing.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

From Pig to Man

The more that Plaid Ministers Ieuan Wyn Jones and Rhodri Glyn Thomas adapt to their new roles, the more I find my mind drifting to the closing words of Animal Farm. The talk is of ‘making a difference’, but the actions seem increasingly indistinguishable from those of their Labour colleagues - or those of the previous government.

Perhaps there is a degree of inevitability about this. The Establishment hugs them close, wraps them in layers of protection from the cruel world outside, and ensures that they get as high a proportion as possible of their information and feedback from those whose whole instinct is continuity rather than change. There is also a good dose of sycophancy thrown in for good measure.

There is definitely a sense of a ‘village’ around any elected institution – whether it be the House of Commons, the National Assembly, or any other body. Within that village people get very excited about things that pass most of the rest of us by; they become exercised about the remotest suggestion of a slight, whether real or imagined, and worst of all, they start to believe that their world is the 'real' one, and that their actions and words have considerably more influence and impact than is actually the case. If that's true for all the elected members, it’s even truer in the case of those elevated to ministerial positions.

It was in this context that I read the words of Ieuan Wyn Jones in yesterday’s Western Mail. One should always be cautious in interpreting the words of politicians, of course. That is especially so in the case of Jones, who has shown an ability in the past to lead people to think that he's said something that he hasn't. But when he says:

"Oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them. What people will judge us on is delivery.",

I think he actually means what he is saying. His strategy is to show that Plaid can deliver in government, and expect that people will then support the party as a result. Leaving aside the question as to whether he really wants the ‘government’ (rather than his party) to win the next election, I believe he’s got it wrong, for two main reasons.

Firstly, where is the evidence that people will vote for a party which shows it can deliver? People vote for all sorts of different reasons, many of which are absolutely nothing to do with how well or badly the government has performed. And most of the factors are outside the control of any government. The words of Macmillan spring to mind – “Events, dear boy. Events”.

Secondly, even if it were true, then what people would be voting on is not an objective assessment of how well the government has performed, but on their perception of the government’s performance. Jones clearly believes that he can demonstrate a level of competence in government which will create that perception; but most of the electorate start from the belief that ‘competent politician’ is an oxymoron. That’s a lot of cynicism to overcome.

All governments and politicians believe that they are doing a good job and they all believe that they are making a difference. The difference that they actually make is always less than they think it is – it comes back to my earlier point that they believe their words and actions are of greater import than is really the case.

Immediately after the Assembly elections, Jones and his party did their best to propel the Tories into power in Wales. There is a serious danger that a strategy which depends primarily or entirely on convincing people that the government has performed well will finish the job.

Friday, 19 October 2007

From the Heritage bunker

Wednesday, 17th October

Sir Humphrey: Minister, here is the draft statement which we have prepared for you to read this afternoon.

Minister: But it doesn’t say anything.

Sir Humphrey: Precisely, Minister.

Minister: I can’t go into the Chamber and stand up and speak without saying anything.

Bernard: Oh, I don’t know Minister. You’ve managed it quite well for most of the past eight years.

Sir Humphrey: Minister, there are delicate negotiations in progress, difficult issues to be addressed, feathers to be unruffled. It cannot be helpful for these issues to be discussed openly in the full glare of media attention.

Minister: But we’re going to be pumping millions into the centre; surely I have to tell them that?

Sir Humphrey: Minister, there is no point telling them something they already know. Everyone knows that you’re going to be pumping millions in, but it’s important to the negotiations that you do not reveal how many millions.

Minister: So how many millions will we be pouring in?

Sir Humphrey: Oh, I don’t know. As many as they ask for. This is a flagship Arts project which cannot be allowed to fail.

Minister: If we’re going to give them whatever they ask for, that doesn’t sound like much of a negotiation to me.

Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, if you really want to tell them that, you can, but it would be a very brave decision on your part.

Minister: Thank you Sir Humphrey.

Bernard: I don’t think you understand, Minister. Sir Humphrey means that it would raise a lot of other questions.

Minister: Such as?

Bernard: Well, Minister, to start with, people might wonder where the money was coming from, and what other schemes would be suffering as a result.

Minister: And where is the money coming from?

Sir Humphrey: Oh, there are a lot of minor unimportant little Arts projects in other constituencies across Wales which might have to be deferred for a while.

Minister: Deferred. That doesn’t sound too bad. For how long?

Sir Humphrey: Hard to say, Minister. Months, years, possibly decades.

Minister: That sounds more like cancelled than deferred to me.

Sir Humphrey: Oh no, Minister. We almost never cancel projects; we prefer to defer them.

Minister: I see. So I speak without saying anything – how do I handle questions?

Sir Humphrey: Well, your predecessors would always attack the people who leaked the document. Damaging sensitive negotiations, that sort of thing.

Minister: But I’ve used leaked documents in the past myself – won’t I look a little inconsistent?

Bernard: No-one expects consistency from a politician.

Sir Humphrey: You are the Minister. Your predecessor was the Minister. To us, names and individuals are unimportant; there is only The Minister, and The Minister is always consistent.

Minister: You mean that now that I’m the Minister, I carry on doing whatever the previous Minister did?

Sir Humphrey and Bernard: Yes, Minister.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

And they all lived happily ever after...

Once upon a time, there was a political party. It was neither a very large nor a particularly successful party, but it somehow managed to stumble along from election to election without disappearing into oblivion.

Decade after decade passed, and a certain pattern became remarkably consistent - about half way between each General Election, the party would succeed in winning a stunning by-election victory, often apparently surprising itself as much as anyone else. These would always be declared 'Orpington' moments, after one of the very first such events, and would be presented as the harbinger of a ‘mould-breaking’ change in British politics. The party’s members were always exhorted to prepare themselves for greater things – even for forming a complete government on one memorable occasion.

But false dawns can be very misleading, and it never was to be; 'Orpingtons' almost always got reversed very rapidly, and the mould quietly settled back in its place.

The party tried a number of other tactics, even merging itself with another party in an attempt to combine their market share, only to find that two plus two rarely came to a total as high as three, let alone the expected five (arithmetic was never one of their stronger points).

Then something quite remarkable seemed to be happening. Over three elections - 1997, 2001, and 2005 - the party managed to make some major strides forward, hitting a level of seats in 2005 which was quite unprecedented for a third party, and was the largest they had achieved for a very, very long time.

With a popular leader who managed to communicate effectively with the electorate – striking a particularly effective note with young people – coupled with careful targeting, and non-stop campaigning, who could know where this would lead? They immediately recognised that something needed to be done. They looked at the situation long and hard, and decided that the obvious thing to do was to sack their leader. They needed a reason of course, and settled on the rather spurious (in the sense that if taken to its logical conclusion, it would disqualify a large number of other politicians) fact that the leader was known to be rather fond of a drink or ten.

It was obvious to all that what they really needed was someone older; someone largely unknown. If he were also to appear aloof and as though he were living in bygone days, so much the better. And so it was, and the plan worked beautifully. The party faded back into the scenery, with its voter base dissipating rapidly. Some members even started searching their cupboards for their old sandals, so powerful were their reminiscences.

Seeing that the London branch had so much pleasure in all this, the Welsh branch decided to join in; after all, why should Wales be left out? First, they decided that, with only six of them in their local school, they should threaten the bigger children that they would take their ball home unless they were allowed to set the rules. When the bigger children told them what to do with their ball, they fought amongst themselves until the ball burst open.

With no-one else wanting to play with them any more, no ball left to play with, and not enough players to form a team of their own, the way ahead was obvious. It was time to fight over who should be captain. The existing captain said that he wanted time to think about this, but two of the others said that according to their copies of the rules, the team had to hold an election, and they both wanted to be captain. Two of the others also wanted to be captain, but didn’t say so, and the only one who didn’t want to be captain felt badly ignored.

Then it emerged that the man who thought he was the captain wasn’t really the captain at all – the real captain was one of the pupils from London who had been having a lot of fun recently with two young twins and their mother. Although he was the real captain, he suddenly remembered that he had important business to attend to in Montgomeryshire, and decided that he’d give up being Welsh captain so that he could concentrate on that - and his young friends.

With attention finally returning to him, the other Welsh captain decided that he would indeed give up – but not yet – and used his copy of the rule book to convince the two who said they wanted to be captain (as well as the two who wanted to be captain but hadn't said so yet) that they should shut up because he was bigger than them, and anyway no two of them could agree with each other as to what to do, and until two of them could agree on something, there was nothing that they could do. The one who didn’t want to be captain still felt ignored and forgotten.

Dramatically, attention then switched back to the London branch who decided that they’d had so much fun the last time that they’d sacked a leader that they’d do it again, but this time, they’d use against him all the reasons that had made him so attractive in the first place – his age, aloofness, lack of effective communications skills and so on.

The real Welsh captain – the one with urgent business in Montgomeryshire – then decided that although he’d given up being captain of the Welsh branch, he'd quite like to become one of the captains of the London branch (for they had two of those as well), even though that might make it difficult to attend to his business in Montgomeryshire.

In next week’s episode – how I successfully captained the Titanic to its planned rendezvous with the iceberg, by A Libdem.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Clear Muddy Water

It’s not only tabloid journalists who work on the basis that they should never allow the truth to get in the way of a good story; politicians are quite adept at it as well. The only difference is that journalists define ‘good’ as being something that people will want to read, whereas politicians define ‘good’ as being helpful to their party or, more often, their own position. Either way, it’s the readers/ electors who have to try and work out where the truth actually lies – if there is any at all.

So, is the latest budget settlement for the National Assembly a good one or a bad one? Labour’s London end, in the person of the Chancellor, of course, says it’s a good one, and draws attention particularly to the fact that it includes a 2.4% year-on-year rise over and above the increase that would be down to inflation alone. Inevitably and completely unsurprisingly, Peter Hain agrees with him. But then, for the Government making the decisions, every year is a good one. That fits their agenda.

Plaid’s London end, in the person of Adam Price, claims that it’s the “worst financial settlement for Wales since devolution”. I can’t quite remember the words used in previous years to describe the settlements, but I’m reasonably sure that Plaid have never ever described the settlement as anything other than a bad one, whatever the actual numbers. That has, to date, fitted Plaid’s agenda. (It is interesting however that Plaid’s parliamentary leader, Elfyn Llwyd seems to be rather less exercised about the numbers this year.)

Both parties’ Cardiff ends, of course, find themselves in a more difficult situation, so it comes as no surprise to find that the official WAG response – presumably on behalf of both parties – is a little more restrained. They are both, after all, finding themselves between a rock and a hard place. Labour were never going to be too harsh on their own government, and Plaid, as their coalition partners, can hardly disagree with the official government line, so we have words like 'tough' and ‘challenging', rather than outright criticism.

Back to the issue of truth. Whilst there is some disagreement as to whether the increase over and above inflation is 2.4%, as indicated by the Chancellor, or 1.8% as calculated by Adam Price, there is no disagreement that the budget is increasing at an above-inflation rate, which clearly allows for some spending growth over and above the ongoing government programme.

The nub of the problem, of course, is whether that will be enough to fund the entire One Wales programme. We don't have the detailed comments of the civil servants on the costings of the programme (although the Western Mail is still working on that), but we do know that the programme does not come cheap. The Assembly government may struggle to deliver on all its commitments, and we can be absolutely certain that the Tory opposition will be watching for any hint of a fudge here or a watering down there.

It is Plaid who have most to fear in this situation. Core spending is hardest to cut, and the extra commitments introduced by the One Wales agreement will be the easiest - a lot of the Plaid contribution to the programme is in those extras rather than in the core. Ending up in coalition supporting a Labour programme would be a somewhat ignominious end to the story.

However, the fact that the spending round would be tighter this time round than in previous years was known by all in advance, and if the coalition partners have been sensible in their discussions, they will have factored this in, won’t they? It would be nice to feel confident on that point; but we were reminded in the Western Mail story yesterday of Adam Price’s comment that the All-Wales Accord was never properly costed, and we have only the word of the politicians involved that One Wales has been. (As a complete aside, I do find myself wondering whether, had its supporters been successful in peddling the rainbow, we would ever have been told that it was based on a back-of-the-envelope costing? Maybe I’m just a tad too cynical sometimes, but I strongly suspect that the members – outside the Assembly – of the parties involved weren’t made aware of this at the time.)

Time alone will reveal what is true and what is not, but already we are seeing a difference. What Plaid would have unreservedly condemned as a betrayal of Wales just a few short months ago in Opposition becomes nothing more than a tough challenge to be faced up to in Government. Is this change in language what politicians mean by ‘making a difference’?

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Worst Blogging Experience

Those of us who hide behind pseudonyms do so for all sorts of reasons – some good, some bad. But it's a conscious choice, for whatever reason. Protection of pseudonymity is the main reason for my having declined Normal Mouth's kind invitation to be profiled, some time ago – there are questions that I would simply not wish to answer.

But there is one of his standard questions which I do now wish to answer – the one about my worst blogging experience to date. It is this: writing a post, to which someone else responded by writing a post of his own, to which someone else responded by commenting – and then both of them lost their jobs.

I am referring, of course, to Keir Hardly (aka Marcus Warner), and Dave Collins, both researchers working for Labour AM’s. I didn’t agree with Dave Collins’ comments at all; and I disagreed with a lot of what Marcus had to say on the language, but neither of them deserved to lose their jobs for expressing their opinions. I cannot, of course, accept any responsibility for what they said; but I do feel a degree of responsibility for having made the posting which led to them saying it.

Their opinions are not unique, and statements made publicly by some elected members have also expressed a less than enthusiastic attitude towards the language without them being in any danger of losing their jobs. And those opinions are more common than some supporters of the language might wish to admit. Dealing with them by means of witch hunts instead of by reasoned argument merely hides opinions; it doesn’t change them.

So, welcome back to Marcus, with whom I am sure I shall continue to disagree on occasion, and best wishes to both of you in looking for new employment. Your sackings say more about your employers than they do about you.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Bourne left to hang

The progress of the Welsh Tories is apparently being held up as an example to the rest of the party. ‘Look what they’ve achieved in Wales’, the argument runs- 'surely the rest of us can learn from that?' But it goes no further than that.

The support of the central party for Bourne's stance on Wales is at best lukewarm. Given several opportunities to say that he supports his party's leader in Wales, Cameron has studiously failed either to back him, or to slap down those who take the opposite view, such as David Davies. I think we can take it that Bourne's views are just that - his own. Tolerated as long as it helps to win a few seats in the Assembly, but never to become party policy. Come the parliamentary election, we can expect the Tory party in Wales to revert to its usual form.
According to the Western Mail, 10 of the party’s group in the Assembly are 'broadly' in favour of his pro-devolution stance; but ‘broadly’ seems to leave considerable room for doubt as to the extent of their enthusiasm. Coupled with a lack of outstanding talent in the Assembly group, it's probably enough to leave Bourne unchallenged as leader for the time being, but the conspicuous lack of support from the English party will hardly be giving him confidence for the long term. And whether the Welsh Tories' position in the Assembly would survive a change of leadership must remain an open question.

In the meantime, as Ordovicius points out, it looks as though they want to fight their parliamentary campaign on the basis of an irrelevance, which comes, in their own words, no higher than 1002nd in the list of matters of importance, even to rural communities.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

The politics of Goldilocks

Absolutely fascinating debate that has been hosted by Gwe, following on from a posting by Normal Mouth. This debate raises all sorts of issues about nationality and identity, and their role in politics.

I ran into some criticism from some nationalist bloggers with these two posts a month or so ago. Some of those who commented felt that I was arguing against the existence of a Welsh nation – but that was never my intention. What I struggle with is finding an objective basis for defining the existence of a Welsh nation which cannot also be used to define the existence of a British nation.

Some, such as AlaninDyfed, get around the issue by simply defining ‘nationality’ in a way which excludes any possibility of multiple or overlapping nationalities, and attempts to force people to choose a single defining nationality. Whilst this has the attraction of simplicity, it seems to me to ignore the simple reality that the majority of people in Wales define themselves as both Welsh and British. There is something deeply unsatisfactory for me in simply dismissing the view of the majority as a delusion.

Normal Mouth has suggested that nationality is to some extent a contrived concept; that's an idea that has some validity to me. If nationality cannot be defined in some objective fashion, but depends ultimately on what each of us feel, than it is, ultimately, a product of human invention. Does a baby have any inherent nationality before (s)he is conditioned into one by nurture? I would argue not, a point of view which supports the ‘contrived’ proposition.

But, for something which has been invented by humanity, nationality has a very powerful hold on almost all of us. I think that hold is as much to do with identity, though, as with nationality; and the two are not quite the same thing. Ultimately, our nationality is something that we choose. I am Welsh because I choose to be so; I choose to identify with 'Welshness' - whatever that is. Ordovicius (as well as Gwe and Aran) raised an extremely pertinent point in saying that there isn’t even a single ‘Welsh’ identity. ‘Being Welsh’ means all sorts of different things to different people, yet still somehow, we feel there to be enough commonality there that the idea of Independence for Ynys Môn sounds a very odd one.

Even though I choose to be Welsh, I have no real problem considering myself to be British and European as well – and why ever not? There is a very valid argument that, for most English people, ‘English’ and ‘British’ mean more or less the same thing. Sometimes though, I feel that we might be too quick to rail against the apparent arrogance of that view, and start to deliberately define ourselves in ways that distance ourselves from it as a reaction. Here in Wales, we know that they think like that, and we know that the two nationalities are not the same – but still most of our compatriots manage to be quite relaxed about being both Welsh and British.

However, fascinating though the debate about nationality and identity is, the real question we need to address is surely this – what does it mean in political terms?

For some Welsh nationalists, there is a straight line between Wales being a nation and Wales being independent; the one should lead automatically to the other. And much as I dislike the term ‘Brit-nat’, there are those who jump straight from the belief that we are a single British nation to the conclusion that devolution should be scrapped and all decisions should be taken in London. In both cases, it seems to me, this is the politics of Goldilocks; the idea that there is a structure of government which is 'just right', and that it is based on a simple process of equating ‘nation’ with government structure.

Defining things in this way works well for the nationalists on both sides; but it does little for rational and constructive debate, since neither side will ever convince the other. It looks to me as though what the opinion polls tell us is that the majority of people in Wales are ready and willing to support further devolution, but need to be convinced that it is a good idea on pragmatic rather than theoretical grounds. I suspect that the debate will be won or lost by those who are prepared to argue on bread and butter grounds rather than those who talk in terms of over simplistic nationalism.

We should remember that what was ‘just right’ for both Goldilocks and Baby Bear was far from ‘just right’ for either Mummy Bear or Daddy Bear. They need to be convinced that different really is better.